Business, Economics and Jobs

Mexico: Peña Nieto's plethora of pain

Teachers march on Mexico City's Reforma avenue to protest the president's education reforms.
Credit: Ronaldo Schemidt

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Freshman Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto might be forgiven if he's wandering the halls of power these days humming the notes to “Dust in the Wind,” that aging ode to existential angst.

“I close my eyes ... only for a moment, and the moment's gone,” sighs the late 1970s dirge by the band Kansas. “All my dreams … pass before my eyes a curiosity.”

This was to be Mexico's moment — and by extension the new president's. Everyone said so: Peña Nieto, and his aides, boosters both domestic and foreign.

Renewed business confidence and investment were to pump the economy to new highs. A deal forged with opposition party leaders would trot long-delayed reforms through congress. Greater intelligence, muffled media coverage and less meddling from Washington were going to calm the country, consigning six years of drug war carnage to history.

Things so far haven't played out that way.

The peso is eroding as economic growth slows well below predictions. Gangland wars, though easing a bit, still tally 1,000 murders a month. Gangsters and vigilantes square off across the Pacific coast lowlands, making them ungovernable. Striking teachers threaten to gut key elements of new education laws, the first of the Peña Nieto reforms that were to transform the country.

The proposed energy industry overhaul Peña Nieto unveiled this month is intended to be the pinnacle of an aggressive year of change. But it’s met outright hostility from the left, frustration from the right, and confused “we'll see” shrugs from the investors they are intended to excite.

"Recession, unemployment, neediness, devaluation, capital flight, violence, corruption and uncertainty," chides leftist populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who trailed Peña Nieto's 38 percent presidential victory last year by 6 points in a three-way race. "And he doesn't want to correct course."

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A marcher at a teacher protest in Mexico City holds a sign saying "Mexico has no president." Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

Faced with ongoing marches and street blockades from the striking teachers, every day with different demands. Peña Nieto considered delivering his first state of the nation speech Sunday from the well-defended compound before deciding on giving it Monday morning from inside the presidential compound, Los Pinos.

The Mexican media, a generation ago tightly controlled by Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century, is taking pleasure with the president's predicament.

A political cartoon in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma, which leans conservative, has Mexico buried up to his eyeballs in sand from an hourglass, the last few grains plunking onto his well coiffed head. “Mexico's Moment,” the cartoon's title smirks. Another on the same editorial pages has the president's limbs, labeled “education reform” and “state of the nation” speech, twisted in knots.

Certainly, other recent presidents have had tough starts.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari battled protesters and armed rebellion for many months after taking office following a 1988 election widely considered fraudulent. An “economic miracle” largely conjured of sand collapsed just three weeks after Ernesto Zedillo succeeded Salinas in 1994. Felipe Calderon in 2006 launched what he thought would be a short-term army offensive against the drug cartels that continues to torment Peña Nieto.

Yet some of them even enjoyed considerably higher public approval ratings than the current president now, nine months into his term, at 56 percent, according to Consulta Mitofsky polls

Today's problems seemed unthinkable at the start of the year, as Peña Nieto quickly won education, labor and telecommunications reforms through a congress dominated by the opposition. But many analysts always warned that the real challenges lurk in the implementing secondary laws and agency regulations that will give the reforms teeth.

Joined with lawmakers from the conservative National Action Party, Peña Nieto's centrist PRI almost certainly has enough votes to get the constitutional changes required for the energy reforms through congress. But opposition leaders, including leftist icons Lopez Obrador and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas — whose father nationalized Mexico's oil in 1938 and who many believe was cheated of the presidency by fraud in 1988 — have called for scuttling the energy plans through sustained protests beginning next week.

Some leading the striking teachers say the street blockades and marches that have roiled Mexico City the past few weeks are but a taste of what's to come, as energy and fiscal reforms get taken up by congress once it returns to work on Sunday.

"We are against all the reforms because they all go against the interests of the people,” Vicenta Velazquez, leader of teachers blockading Mexico's senate building told GlobalPost. “We belong to the people.”

Aware of the threat to his entire agenda, Peña Nieto insists he's hanging tough on the education plans even as protesters force him behind a phalanx of police and soldiers.

"We're not going to back off, to bungle this effort," Peña Nieto told a crowd of senior citizens bussed in for an event outside the northern city of Monterrey on Wednesday. "We're firm and determined that education reforms materialize that guarantee quality education for all Mexicans."

Such talk presaged results 20 years ago, when his party controlled politics from the presidential compound to the smallest provincial village.

But that monolithic machine exists no longer. Two decades of grudging political opening have replaced it with both a hobbled democracy and policy paralysis, as street protests often trump legislative process.

“The president of Mexico doesn't have a lot of available tools,” political analyst Macario Schettino wrote Thursday in El Universal, Mexico City's other leading newspaper.

“With so many processes of profound change at the same time, the enemies add up. Perhaps he'll tell us this Sunday if he plans to confront them or to capitulate once again.”

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